The Hidden Necropolis

By Robert Nemeth
Caulbearer Press
Five Torches Deep/5e
Levels 3-5

Miners at a copper mine in the foothills of a large mountain range have discovered the remains of an ancient civilization and something more mysterious. A lone survivor of the mine arrives at the nearby town, but is delirious from his experience. Will the adventurers sent to unravel the mystery find out what dark fate has befallen the mine?

This forty page digest adventure uses about nineteen pages to describe a thirteen room dungeon. It is, essentially, combat, with a terrain obstacle or two. The descriptions are boring. The read-aloud fumbling. Today, only wishes are peces. WHich has nothing to do with the adventure.

There’s a weird thing with electronic adventures: page count tends to be meaningless. Your appendix can be as long as you want. You can include as much supporting material as you want. Without limitations, the DM should be more capability supported. And yet … it STILl remains that that a high page count to room number ratio means, almost always, that the adventure will be a poor one. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is some overemphasis on the NOT the adventure that is indicative? When effort is put in to places other than the adventure it can pad out the page count AND the adventure encounter, proper, suffer, if only from an academic standpoint. In the best case, the thirty extra hours you put in to the appendix could have been used to make the A adventure an A+ adventure, maybe. More typically, though, the adventure text is of rather poor quality and the investment in the appendix, etc, tends to indicate an over-investment in “other areas” … either the designer thinks the adventure proper is good enough or they think that the other material is just as good. None of which means you can’t have a decent appendix, or supporting material, but, rather, are you SURE that the core adventure is as good as it reasonably can be? Or, at least, you are at the point where the law of diminishing returns means that you are really not returning much? 

In any event, even in a digest adventure, where the page count ratios can be appropriately off, a high page count to low room number means something is wrong. And it’s wrong here. The rooms are a little padded out with “direction text”, telling us where every passage goes, what it looks like, how wide it is, and, generally, repeating the EXACT same information that is shown on the map. Yeah yeah, you like to know the room dimensions. But do you like to be told, in the DM text, where that south door goes, when a glance at the map shows that? “The closed door on the southern wall opens to a 20’ hallway and to a second door to the mess hall, area 3.” I don’t get it. But, more importantly, the rooms are boring, from both a descriptive standpoint and from an interactivity standpoint. More time investment required.

The rumors are good; they are in voice. The wanderers are good, they are generally doing something, like a river troll who lures the party with the sounds of a drowning child. (I saw another adventure use a will o’ the wisp like this once, I find both cases interesting.) This is though, just about the end of what the adventure does well. Sure, the bolding and bullet points of the text work well from an organization standpoint, but , all you get from that is something akin to a minimally keyed adventure: you can actually run it. 

The read-aloud is in italics. It gives masic, fact-based descriptions of the rooms and can, therefore, be long. Long read-aloud is bad enough but when combined with italics it then gets hard to read. Hard to Read violates Rule 1: be useful to the DM at the table. Further, the read-aloud tends to place the party ‘in’ the action. “You stand before …” or “You come across …” This is just fumbling writing. That is then combined with the poor descriptive text to create boring scenes. There’s no joy or mystery or wonder in those descriptions. “Large’ is used as an adjective. Why do this? Why use one of the most boring descriptive words ever? I guess “big” was unavailable? “Cavernous” “titanic” “colossal”, or something else, you get the idea. When the adventure DOES resort to better words we get text like “Blank eyes within a pale lifeless face stare in your direction [as they move to attack you.]” Blank eyes. Lifeless faces. Good! But it doesn’t fucking do this. That line is the rare exception. And don’t give that fucking “it makes the text too long” bullshit. It’s your job as the writer to make it usable (which usually means short) AND evocative. 

Ok, so, most room are full of “You enter and then … THEY ATTACK” nonsense. Stab stab stab. There are a couple of obstacles in a few rooms; a cave in, a pit/depression to negotiate, but interactivity is quite limited. Some room text has notes for the entire dungeon; the best example being one of the rooms telling the DM how to handle stuck doors in the dungeon. That would be better served in another part of the adventure, like, before the dungeon proper, maybe? Or, of course, we could always flip back to that page to figure out how to open a door … assuming we could remember the page. Sometimes it makes sense to put information inline … and sometimes it don’t. 

The dungeon/hook exists to lure in fresh adventurers to kill. *sigh* When did this become a thing? Is that really as original as a designer can get? 

“Modify the read aloud” says the read aloud notes “based on which entrance the party arrives from, east to west and so on.” Or, don’t buy/run the adventure. That’s another option. Ok, so, that’s mean. But I grow weary of Execution Not Meeting Vision. I’m being overly harsh on this one, it does use section breaks, bolding and bullets effectively. It has an idea. I’m just in a shitty mood today

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages. You don’t get to see any of the encounter rooms, which is a miss. The preview should show you at least one room.

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10 Responses to The Hidden Necropolis

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think a great example of an outlier is Operation Unfathomable! That has a tons of supporting material with limited page count.

    But overall yeah, most use a high page count to make it hard to use at the table

  2. Anonymous says:

    I agree. I think listing the exits and what might be heard, felt, smelled or tasted is a good idea. It need only be a single short sentence.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the review, Bryce. That I made it here on Ten Foot Pole seems to be an accomplishment. This is my first published adventure, not trying to excuse any criticism from you, just as a reference point. I look to improve, but I don’t agree with all of your adventure preferences (that hate of italics for Read Aloud, for instance—I read some of your reviews right before I published and had a brief moment of existential doubt about my use of italics and other supposed no-nos, like use of 2nd person, but I said “fuck it,” better to be done than to be perfect to some random critic, especially one who seems to have a reputation as an asshole ripper style of reviewing).

    I think you’re shortchanging me with the “it’s only combat” part of your review. That part is true for the mine compound, but the Necropolis and mine cavern itself is more of a focus on exploration with risk. And yes, the primary nemesis is looking to attract more minions to his growing army, preferably more powerful ones than a bunch of miners. The adventure is written primarily for Five Torches Deep, which as a system, emphasizes exploration (XP is based on gp successfully captured and brought back to home base). So, the hook of possible treasure from some lost civilization of serpent men should be tantalizing enough. Also, I think this is the first Five Torches Deep adventure published.

    The other thing missing from your review in the long focus on page count is that the appendix is as long as it is because this was a Kickstarter Zine Quest 2 project. One of the stretch goals was to make a full 5E conversion. You know how long 5E stat blocks are. Also, I included the FTD stat blocks for all the random encounter table monsters because the FTD rule book only includes 9 stat blocks and a very nice Monster Math table for the GM to build their own monsters. I figured some GMs are lazy and don’t want to do that even when they have a nice and easy table to do so. I do think my minor magic mishap table and the expanded injury list are a good addition to anyone wanting to run FTD.

    Anyways, thanks again for the review.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Also, the part about the possibility of a stuck door was where it was because those are the only two rooms that have doors. The possibility of the door being stuck only matters if it has some mechanical effect which it might with the zombies initiative/surprise. There are no other doors in the dungeon, so there is no reason to put that anywhere else. It’s where it is because it’s going to be most useful to the GM there.

  5. Bryce Lynch says:

    Guilty, I guess. But at least I say why and hopefully provide enough information for people who don’t mind such things. And that style is, negative though it is, better than the circle jerking that tends to pervade small communities.

    Anyway, I would comment further on the italics stuff. I encourage you to revisit that topic. There are several academic papers on how reading comprehension slows when italics is used, and in the “art” of font selection, in general, for readability. It’s still possible to make the read-aloud stand out by using other styles easier on the eyes and that enables easier comprehension … and keeps my eyes from glazing over. Read aloud is ok. Italics is ok, but they are circumstantial. A few words of italics, for emphasis, is ok, a phrase, but not longer text chunks.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks for your reply. I’ll reconsider the use of italics for read aloud, but I chose it specifically because I like how it’s used in Goodman Games Fifth Edition Fantasy Line (I know you’ve criticized this in a previous review) and with a zine or digest format I already had a boxed side-bar regarding magic mishaps in FTD and 5E. I figured the boxed side-bar would get confused with read aloud text if I used boxed text and being zine/digest size, I didn’t have the space to make the side bar more tangential with layout like you can with a full size module.

      Ironically, I’m a cognitive psychology professor in my day job, but I’m a memory guy not a language dude. The most I know about reading comprehension and fonts has to do with the standard rec to use serif fonts for body text and sans serif for titles, subtitles, and presentations. But even that I’m somewhat skeptical holds true (I prefer serif fonts in general except for presentations). I chose EB Garamond because Garamond was used by TSR, and I wanted to steer clear of any font licensing issues. EB Garamond is an open font.

      Again, thanks for buying the zine, taking the time to read it, and giving it a review. Much appreciated from this RPG nobody.

      Btw, I changed the preview on DriveThru so that you can see the first room, too.

  6. Dave says:

    Is there a more dangerous job for NPCs than miner? (Adventurer doesn’t count, that’s a PC job even when NPCs get it.) Sailor, maybe, from the ubiquitous shipwrecks that leave survivors stranded on islands without all their starting gear, but I feel like miner might edge it out.

    Not being sarcastic here either. There’s almost a game possibility in it. Like a DCC funnel, but instead of facing something horrific and weird it’s just another day at the mine.

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